PressSpotting: Grand Theft Coverage

The week saw game journalists engaged in a global free-for-all to review, cover, and not criticize the year's biggest game.

On April 28, the front page story on the New York Times' Arts section wasn't about a new Broadway play or a hot new CD or even a blockbuster summer movie. It was a balanced, 1,100-word review of Grand Theft Auto IV that described the game as a "violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun."

The Times wasn't alone. Kotaku's Brian Crecente briefly returned to the Rocky Mountain News to write a major 2,000-word feature on his five days locked in a room with the game. Marc Saltzman compared it to "an interactive episode of The Sopranos" from the pages of USA Today. MSNBC noted in a subhead that it's "a blast to play a criminal in a safe, consequence-free environment."

As much as Grand Theft Auto IV is being hailed as a revolution in gaming, its release also seems to herald a revolution in mainstream coverage of gaming itself.

Sure, the game is already attracting its fair share of criticism from the usual corners of the media. The New York Daily News let the mother of a slain police officer rail against the game from their pages. Immigrant groups and drunk driving opponents are getting some media traction with their concerns about the game. Feminist writers (spurred on by IGN's out-of-context sex and violence trailer) are somewhat justifiably up in arms about the game's rampant misogyny. Legendarily vehement GTA critic Jack Thompson is doing his attention-grabbing best to decry the game's adult content. And, of course, many mainstream outlets are trying to cover the controversy itself without taking sides.

But for all the moral scolds getting column inches, many mainstream outlets seem to be offering a genuine counterpoint this time around. The Harvard researchers behind the book Grand Theft Childhood have been making the media rounds for weeks telling parents not to overreact to the game. The Guardian ran a piece by MUD creator Richard Bartle trumpeting gamers' triumph over censorship. An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times said the game shows the "interactive video industry has turned an aesthetic corner and is now an art form..." Publisher Rockstar Games even did its part, breaking its usual media silence to allow president Sam Houser and producer Leslie Benzies to promote and defend the game in public.

Overall, the mainstream media seems to be at least considering the idea that this game is no more of a threat than comic books or rock-n-roll were back in their most controversial days. Outside the controversy, mainstream outlets also addressed the GTAIV release as the cultural and business phenomenon that it is. Pieces on CBS News, ABC News, MSNBC and CNN noted the game's midnight launch lines and record sales projections alongside content concerns.

Of course, both Microsoft and Sony are trying to attach the game's business success to the success of their particular system. Eurogamer notes that Microsoft has been "targeting critics likely to be asked to appear on mainstream radio and TV broadcasts" with messages about the Xbox 360's impending, exclusive downloadable content. Sony, for its part, got some nice coverage in a Reuters story saying the game will help the PS3 catch up in the console sales race. From the entertainment news side, there's growing chatter that the game's success will hurt this weekend's opening of the Iron Man movie.

On the specialist press side, it's hard to imagine a more glowing reception. The game has jumped to the top of the GameRankings all-time average score list thanks to 17 perfect rankings so far, including the fifth-ever 10/10 from this very site. (Editor's Note: A technical glitch caused some confusion about GameSpot's GTAIV rating. For more infornmation, check out Editor-in-Chief Ricardo Torres' blog post.) Even the "bad" reviews have generally not dared to score the game below a 9.5. The hyperbole about the game probably reached its zenith in Game Informer's review, which didn't mention a single thing negative about the game.

Though it hasn't lifted Take-Two stock, the critical reception is good news for Rockstar, since it will likely increasing consumer demand for the game even further. On the other hand, the flood of perfect scores seems to caused a minor backlash from fans and forum-goers who believe that the game isn't perfect. (Never mind that no gaming publication actually believes a perfect score actually means a game is perfect--many readers obviously have that perception.) There's also reports of technical issues with both the PlayStation 3 and, to a lesser extent, the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Of course, the high scores could have something to do with the slightly unorthodox way the game was reviewed. As the BBC notes, "Most reviewers were not sent advance copies of the game, and instead had to attend Rockstar offices or sit in booked hotel rooms to play the game." Who can say how this Rockstar-sponsored environment affected the thoughts of reviewers?

More than that, though, this system also affects how the game is reviewed by those not lucky enough to get early access. The Associated Press reviewer admitted to only having eight hours with the game before writing it up, and Time Magazine's reviewer said he only played to 6.24 percent completion before jotting down his thoughts.

(During the course of writing his review, GameSpot's reviewer played GTAIV for nearly 60 hours, attaining over 70 percent completion rank. In addition to finishing the main storyline and many major side quests, he also tested the multiplayer modes at length.--ed.)

Then there are the issues surrounding IGN's blowout, seven-page "exclusive first review" of the game, which attracted the attention of Variety's Ben Fritz. He astutely asks, "How can we trust a videogame review when the outlet running it has been given a major commercial favor--one that's worth money--from the publisher of the game?"

But more than non-IGN media outlets, the biggest losers in the blanket coverage of GTAIV are other games which took on Rockstar's behemoth. Even a recently released blockbuster like Mario Kart Wii is having trouble getting coverage through the deafening noise surrounding the game. The outlook is even worse for relatively unknown titles like critical sleeper The World Ends With You. One can't help but wonder how much more attention that game would be getting were it released during any other part of the year. But what can you do? Judging by the media coverage, it's a Grand Theft Auto world, and the rest of us are just playing in it.

For more about PressSpotting, check out the introductory column.

Kyle Orland is a freelance journalist specializing in video games and based out of Laurel, MD. He's written for a variety of outlets, as detailed on his personal site. Questions? Comments? Story ideas? Bitter invective? Send it to Kyle.

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